Local Spices:

Savory Seeds in The Middle Ages

Herbs and spices seem to be differentiated one of two ways: either herbs are what you can grow in your back yard, while spices have to be imported, or herbs are the green bits and spices are everything else. Many of the seeds commonly used in the middle ages were primarily used as digestives, carminatives, and diuretics. Comfits, bread and distilled waters (the ancestors of our cordials and liqueurs) were made from them.

Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum)

A.k.a. 'black lovage', a potherb known from Russia to Poland. Alexanders seeds and lovage seeds can be used in similar ways to the herbs. Culpeper (1652): "It warmeth a cold Stomach, and openeth stoppings of the Liver and Spleen, it is good to move Womens Courses to expel the After-birth, to break Wind, to provoke Urine, and help the Strangury; and these things the Seeds wil do likewise, if either of them be boyled in Wine, or being bruised and taken in Wine, it is also effectual against the biting of Serpents."

Anise (Pimpinella anisum)

This is the favorite digestive/carminative of the period. Anise was one of the comfit seeds mentioned by Rumpolt.It was used in mustards and other sauces. Apparently anise seed was added to the doubly-baked breads or rusks called binavice or biscotum which were called "soldier's bread" by Syrennius, who "noted that anise seed was normally added not so much for the flavor as for health reasons" (Dembinska, Food and Drink of Medieval Poland). Banckes' Herbal suggests it to treat gas, induce sweating, and as diuretic and/or laxative, but says, "And the seed must be parched or roasted in all manner medicines; then it will work the rather." William Turner (16th cent): "Anyse maketh the breath sweeter and swagethe payne." The Roman Pliny mentioned it in bread. Edward IV of England reputedly had sachets of anise and orris root to perfume his linen.(Clarkson) Humorally, it is considered hot in the second degree and dry in the second degree. Candied anise seed shows up as a garnish on top of puddings such as the plum puree called Erboles, also.

Caraway (Carum carvi)

Native to northern Europe, caraway appears to have been a flavoring for baked goods there even in period. Sophie Knab, in her book on Polish herbs, says "In the Middle Ages, caraway was a trade item found in parts of Belgium and Poland, however it was already being used as a spice from the time of the first Piasts. It was added to beet soup and all varieties of meats and baked goods, especially breads." p. 99.   Garland says "the seeds have been found among the rubbish on prehistoric sites in southern Europe. They were a common ingredient in 15th century English cookery (Falstaff is invited to 'a pippin and a dish of caraways'), and Gerard writes that 'it consumeth wind' and 'is delightful to the stomache and taste'." A digestive and carminative, caraway was one of the comfit seeds mentioned by Rumpolt. It's one of the ingredients in kummel liqueur.  Rye bread with caraway may be period too. Banckes suggests it for flatulence, coughs, 'the frenzy', 'the biting of venemous beasts', 'scabs and tetters' and as a tonic for baldness. Humorally, it is considered hot in the third degree and dry in the third degree.

Parkinson (1629): "the seede is much used to bee put among baked fruit, or into bread, cakes, etc. to give them a rellish, and to help digest winde in them [that] are subject thereunto. It is also made into Comfit and put into Trageas, as we call them in English, Dredges that are taken for the cold and winde in the body, as also are served to the table with fruit."

Culpeper (1652): "Caraway Seed hath a moderat sharp quality wherby it breaketh Wind and provoketh Urin, which also the Herb doth. . . . The Seed is conducing to all the cold griefs of Head and Stomach, the Bowels or Mother, as also the wind in them, and helpeth to sharpen the Eye-sight. The Pouder of the Seed put into a Pultis, taketh away black and blue spots of Blows or Bruises. The Herb it self, or with some of the Seed bruised and fryed, laid hot in a bag or double cloth to the lower part of the Belly, easeth the pains of the wind Chollick. Caraway Comfects, once only dipped in Sugar, and half a spoonful of them eaten in the morning fasting, and as many after each meal is a most admirable Remedy for such as are troubled with Wind."

Coriander (Coriandrum sativum)

Garland documents many medical and culinary uses for coriander in period, including flavoring barley gruel. Candied coriander comfits are mentioned by Rumpolt. "Coriander was known in Poland during the time of the first Piasts (900 A.D.) In the Middle Ages it was valued both as a spice and as medication. Marcin of Urzedow (16th century) wrote: 'Everyone knows of coriander: even children in diapers know of the sugared coriander'." Knab,  p. 106. Banckes' Herbal says, "the seed thereof is good to do away the fevers that come the third day." They may have been the earliest spice imported to Britain: "The coriander seeds found by archaeologists on the floor of a late Bronze Age hut at Minnis Bay  near Birchington, Kent, represent our earliest record of a spice imported from the Mediterranean region." (C. Anne Wilson, Food and Drink in Britain.)

Cormary [Roast Pork] from the Forme of Cury:
Cormarye. Take colyaundre, caraway smale grounden, powdour of peper and  garlec ygrounde, in rede wyne; medle alle 6ise togyder and salt it. Take loynes of pork rawe and fle of the skyn, and pryk it wel with a knyf, and lay it in the sawse. Roost it whan 6ou wilt, & kepe 6at 6at fallith  6erfro in the rostyng and see6 it in a possynet with faire broth, &  serue it forth wi6 6e roost anoon."
Mix enough red wine to marinate the roast in with the spices and garlic and salt to taste. Prick the roast all around with a knife, then marinate the roast in the mixture. Marinate as long as you wish or overnight. Roast in a shallow pan with the marinade in it, at 350 degrees F for 20 minutes per pound, or until the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees F on a meat thermometer.  Remove the roast, and mix the pan drippings/marinade with broth. Cook this au jus sauce until reduced by at least 1/4 and serve with the roast.

Cumin (Cuminum cyminum)

Another digestive/carminative seed. Garland says, ". . . its warming effect is felt when taken, as Gerard describes, 'in a supping broth . . . for the chest and cold lungs'. He also suggests sewing the seeds into a little bag with bay salt, heating it on a bed pan, sprinkling with vinegar and applying it to stitch and paines thereof'' . . . the Celts along the Atlantic coast of France baked fish with cumin in the first century BC". Swahn says "Northern European farmers long cultivated cumin in order to flavor bread, cheese and liquor." Banckes mentiones it for flatulence, indigestion and as a diuretic. Humorally, it is considered hot in the third degree and dry in the third degree.

Hildegard of Bingen says, "Cumin is dry and of moderate heat. No matter how it is eaten, it is good, useful and healthful for a person who is congested. . . . One who wishes to eat cooked or dry cheese without ill consequences  should place cumin on it." She also suggests a troche of cumin, pepper, pimpernel and flour made into small cakes for nausea. Clarkson: "In medieval times cumin was used for dangerous wounds and we also learn that if you take the seeds, sugar coated, night and morning, 'by the help of God you will obtain benefit.'"

Dill (Anethum graveolens)

Both the fresh dill 'weed' and the seeds were used in medieval Europe. Garland says, "The old Norse name for dill was dilla, which means 'to lull' and the oil from the leaves and especially the seeds, contains a gentle sedative. It is also a soothing digestive and relieves flatulence; dill water has been used to calm colicky babies for centuries'. It appears in the herbals, such as Banckes' as a remedy for flatulence, indigestion and hiccups. (Banckes' also recommends the burnt seed for wounds, and for scalding of the male genitalia.) Humorally, it is considered hot in the third degree and dry in the second degree.

In Poland it was used in pickling: Mikolaj Reg (15th century) says: "pickle cucumbers in salt, add some dill and sour cherry or oak leaves..."  and : "Having removed the outside leaves of some nice heads of cabbage, cut them in half and fit them neatly into a vat, spreading beet chards and dill between the layers" (Dembinska)  Syreniusz, an early 17th century Polish herbalist, says: "dill is useful not only as a medicine but also used at the table . . . the leaves are used in meats, soups, and vegetables . . . the seed is also added to pickling cabbage, salting meat, and added to sausages for stuffing. . . . and  Marcin of Urzedow [16th cent] indicated that garden dill was 'very good for treating nightmares'." (Knab, p111).

Culpeper (1652): "The Seed is of more use than the Leavs and more effectual to digest raw and viscuous humors, and is used in Medicines that serve to expel Wind and the pains proceeding therfrom. The Seed being toasted or fried and used in Oyls or Plaisters, dissolveth the Imposthumes in the Fundament, and drieth up all moist Ulcers (especially in the secret parts.) The Oyl made of Dill is effectual to warm, to resolve Humors and Imposthumes, to eas pains and to procure rest. The Decoction of Dill be it Herb or Seed (only if you boyl the Seed you must bruis it) in white Wine, being drunk is a gallant expeller of Wind and provoker of the Terms."

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)

Seeds of the perennial fennel along with the leaves and the bulb of the annual Florence fennel variety were used in medieval cooking. Pliny thought it was an eye herb. It had a reputation as a diet aid: "In 17th-century Britain, William Coles . . . wrote that fennel is much used 'for those that are grown fat, to abate their unwieldiness and cause them to grow more gaunt and lank." It's a carminative and digestive also: Garland says: "the seeds were eaten in quantities with fish and with hard fruit because of their digestive qualities. In the 11th century a large household is recorded as having consumed 8.5 pounds of fennel seed in a month." It was also used to increase breast milk.It was also used to make comfits. Marcin of Urzedow wrote: 'fennel is known by everyone in Italy. They use it in baked cakes and bread.' (Knab) Humorally, it is considered hot in the second degree and dry in the third degree.

Banckes' herbal says "If the seed be dried, it is good and comforteth the stomach. It openeth the stopping of the reins and of the bladder." Hildegard of Bingen said, "Its seed is also of a warm nature and is beneficial to a person's health . . . Eating fennel or its seed every day diminishes bad phlegm and decaying matter, keeps bad breath in check, and make one's eyes see clearly by its good heat and beneficial powers."

Culpeper (1652): "The Leavs or Seed boiled in Barley Water and drunk is good for Nurses to encreas their Milk and make it more wholsom for the Child: The Leavs, or rather the Seed boyled in Water staieth the Hiccough, and taketh away that loathing which oftentimes hapneth to the Stomachs of Sick, and Feaverish Persons, and allayeth the heat therof. The Seed boyled in Wine and drunk, is good for those that are bitten by Serpents, or have eaten Poyson full Herbs or Mushroms: . . The Seed is of good use in Medicines to help shortness of breath, and Wheesing by stopping of the Lungs. It helpeth also to bring down the Courses and to clens the parts after delivery. . . Both Leavs, Seeds, and Roots hereof are much used in Drinks or Broths, to make people more spare and lean that are too fat." He also comments on the use of fennel with fish.


Then as now, flaxseed was used for the laxative effect of the mucilage the seeds give out when soaked in water. Flaxseed oil (now called linseed oil) was pressed from the seeds and used for food and other purposes: "Syreniusz recommended it for healing blotches and blemishes, herpes, scabs and even rough fingernails" (Knab)

Hempseed (Cannabis sativa).

The seeds of Hemp were pressed  to produce cooking oil in central Europe, and were prepared as a pottage (a recipe is given in the famous dietary work by Platina). There is reason to believe that the cannabis sativa cultivars used in medieval Europe, at least, were low in THC and bred for quality of fiber.

Culpeper (1652): "The Seed of Hemp consumeth Wind, and by the much use thereof disperseth it so much that it drieth up the natural Seed for Procreation; yet being boyled in Milk and taken, helpeth such as have a hot dry  cough. The Dutch make an Emulsion out of the Seed, and give it with good success to those that have the Jaundice, especially in the beginning of the Disease if there be no Ague accompanying it, for it openeth Obstructions of the Gall, and causeth digestion of Choller. The Emulsion or Decoction of the Seed staieth Lasks and continual Fluxes, easeth the Chollick, and allayeth the troublesom Humors in the Bowels . . ."

Mustard (Brassica nigra, and Sinapis alba)

Both black and white (yellow) mustard seeds were popular in making the ever-popular condiment in period-- almost every collection of recipes gives one or more recipes for mustard sauce. Mustard sauces generally contained crushed mustard seeds, wine and/vinegar, possibly some oil, some sweetener, and other spices. They were especially served with fish but were also used with mutton, pork and beef. Mustard poultices do seem to date to period as a counterirritant for aches and pains. Humorally, mustard is considered hot in the fourth degree and dry in the fourth degree.

C. Anne Wilson on mustard in Britain: "Probably the cheapest spice of all was native-grown mustard seed. It was purchased for less than a farthing a pound for the household of Dame Alice de Bryene in 1418-19; and in the course of a year eighty-four pounds were consumed. Mustard was eaten with fresh and salt meat, brawn, fresh fish and stockfish, and indeed was considered the best sauce for any dish. As in Roman times mustard seed was pounded in the mortar and moistened with vinegar. French mustard had powdered spices added to it, while Lombard mustard was made up thick with honey, wine, and vinegar, and thinned for use with wine."

Hildegarde of Bingen said, "Its seed flavors other foods." She disapproved of it but said, "However, one who likes to eat mustard should pour over it wine which he has heated. Consumed in this way it does not harm sick people. . . If one does not have wine, he may pour cold vinegar over it . . ."

Culpeper suggests it to remove foreign bodies in the flesh,  and "for the Falling sickness or Lethargy, drousie forgetful evil, to use it both inwardly and outwardly to rub the Nostrils, Forehead, and Temples, to warm and quicken the Spirits, for by the fierce sharpness it purgeth the Brain by sneezing, and drawing down Rhewm and other Viscuous Humors, which by their Distillations upon the Lungs and Chest procure coughing, and therefore with some Honey added thereto doth much good therein"  Decoction of mustard in wine he prescribes for poisoning and venom, as well as agues. "The Seed taken either by it self or with other things either in an Electuary or Drink, doth mightily stir up Bodily lust, and helpeth the Spleen and pains in the sides, and gnawing in the Bowels." As a gargle for sore throat and a poultice for toothache, sciatica, gout and other joint aches. "It is also used to help the falling of the Hair: The Seed bruised, mixed with Honey and applied, or made up with Wax, taketh away the Marks, and black and blue spots of Bruises or the like, the roughness or Scabbedness of the Skin, as also the Leprosie and lowsie evil.." He says, "It is an excellent Sawce for such whose Blood wants clarifying and for weak Stomachs being an Herb of Mars, but naught for Chollerick people, though as good for such as are aged or troubled with cold Diseases, Aries claims somthing to do with it, therfore it strengthens the heart and resisteth poyson, let such whose Stomachs are so weak, they cannot digest their meat or appetite it, take of Mustard Seed a dram, Cinnamon as much, and having beaten them to Pouder ad half as much Mastich in Pouder, and with Gum Arabick dissolved in Rose Water, make it up into Troches, of which they may take one of about half a dram weight an hour or two before meals, let old men and women make much of this medicine, and they will either give me thanks, or manifest ingratitude. "

From Marx Rumpolt, Ein New Kochbuch, c. 1581:Brown Mustard Sauce: "Brown mustard made up with clear vinegar/ is also good."

From the Forme of Cury: "Lombard Mustard: Take Mustard seed and waishe it & drye it in an ovene, grynde it drye, farce it through a farce, clarifie honey wt wine & vinegr & stere it wel togedr, and make it thikke ynowe, & whan thou wilt spende thereof make it thynne wt wine."

Nigella (Nigella sativa)

'Black cumin' was probably used in Central European breads. Humorally, it is considered hot in the third degree and dry in the third degree.

Poppyseed (Papaver somniferum)

The seeds of the poppy  were used to flavor food and for oil, especially in Poland and Rus: "poppy seeds, which were a source of cooking oil during fasting days (when animal lard could not be used), as well as an ingredient in cakes... Poppy seeds also appear frequently in culinary references, but especially during Lent. The seeds offered a way on abstinence days to give complex flavor to food that would otherwise contain meat products" (Dembinska). Hildegarde of Bingen said, "Its seed, when eaten, brings sleep and prevents prurigo. The seeds check hungry lice and nits. They can be eaten after being steeped in water, but are better and more useful eaten raw rather than cooked. The oil which is expressed from them does not nourish or refresh a person, nor does it bring him health or sickness . . . "

Banckes' Herbal makes a distinction between white and black poppy: "The white poppy is cold and moist, and it is good to cause one to sleep. The seed thereof well gathered may be kept ten year. It hath virtue of cleansing . . . The women of Salerno gave to young children the poppy, but they woul give them no black poppy, for it made them much too heavy."

Andrew Dalby mentions poppy seeds in page 75 of 'Flavours of Byzantium'; he's referring to Simeon Seth, saying that 'poppy seeds with honey [were good for the semen] but on the other hand poppy seed could cause headache'. In page 78, he mentions that bread could be sprinkled with sesame or poppy seed (still referring to Simeon Seth, 'On the properties of Food').

Culpeper: "The Garden Poppy Heads with Seeds made into a Syrup, is frequently and to good effect used to procure rest and sleep in the sick and weak, and to stay Catarth's and Defluxions of hot thin Rhewms from the Head into the Stomach, and upon the Lungs, causing a continual Cough, the Fore-runner of a Consumption: It helpeth also Hoarsness of the Throat, and when one hath lost their voice, which the Oyl of the Seed doth likewise. The black Seed boyled in Wine and drunk, is said also to stay the Flux of the Belly and Womens Courses."

Smallage (Apium graveolens)

Wild celery, or smallage, seeds make an appearance in a Banckes'  herbal as part of a remedy for a stitch in the side: "take smallage seed, rue seed, pepper and salt, and grind them well together and temper them with wine and drink it, for it is good for the cold and wicked humors in the stomach, the liver and the lungs. Also, it is good for wounds and for ranklings and to cease the burning and aching and to bring them to their kind again,."  as well as a diuretic and  a liver tonic. However, earlier, Bankes cautions that it causes falling sickness (epilepsy). Hildegarde of Bingen suggests it in a powder for arthritis. Humorally, it is considered hot and dry.


Thanks to Terri Spencer for looking up humoral references for me!

2001, Last updated: April 13, 2018

Jennifer A. Heise, jenne.heise@gmail.com
Permission is explicitly granted for limited reproduction as a printed handout for classes in schools, herb society meetings, or classes or guild meetings in the Society for Creative Anachronism, as long as I am notified and credited and the entire handout is used.
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